Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dissing the Classics

Eleanor Bourg Donlon laments what she sees as a growing disinterest among the young for reading the classics, particularly Dickens and Shakespeare, and she places the blame squarely on classroom teachers, both secondary and college:

The true stage for the anti-Dickens crusade is the classroom. The uninspired pessimism of high-school teachers blights the young receptacle, already numbed into thinking that the Harry Potter series is "quality literature." Jack thinks Sydney Carton is a sap, and Jill doesn't have the foggiest idea what is wrong with Miss Havisham. They agree, however, that the assignment is boring, and they wait longingly for the day when they can escape the class altogether. And so the teachers say, "No one really likes Dickens but we have to read him." Or "Dickens is depressing, but that was because all the Victorians were repressed." Or "Dickens was paid by the word, that's why he wrote such long books." (The last is not only an appalling misunderstanding of Dickensian prose, it is apocryphal. Dickens was paid by the installment, not by the word-a fact that does illuminate much of the structure of the novels.)

Meanwhile, in the universities, Dickens and his characters are accused of homoeroticism, incest, misogyny, and so on: an infamous parade of unseemly sins. Beyond these torrid projections, Dickens is condemned as too sentimental for cynical modernity, too preachy for tolerant modernity, and too prosy for innocent undergraduate eyes. Young students are distracted with Woolf and Joyce and oversexed interpretations of Shakespeare.

I suspect Donlon exaggerates her case at least a little. The teachers of literature that I know best love the classics and teach them with a contagious verve and affection. Even so, those closer to the literature class, whether teacher or student, would be in a better position than I to assess the accuracy of Donlon's indictment.

Her essay is worth reading in its entirety.


Conflict of Interest

Suppose you were running for high office and were to debate your opponent in front of the entire nation. Would you think it fair that the moderator of the debate stands to make a great deal of money if your opponent wins the election but earn nothing if your opponent loses? Probably not, but this is the situation Sarah Palin will find herself in during tomorrow night's debate with Joe Biden.

The moderator, Gwen Ifil, has written a book about Barack Obama which is due to be released in January right around inauguration day. If Obama is the man being inaugurated, Ifil will probably sell a lot of copies. If Obama has lost the election no one is likely to be interested in her book. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which invited her to moderate, committed a gross error in judgment and, for her part, she should have declined their offer.

The fact that she will be asking the questions means that she is in a position to influence the outcome of the proceedings. Her tone, her inflection, the kind of questions she asks, can all work to the advantage or disadvantage of one or the other debater. A moderator is supposed to be disinterested, but Gwen Ifil is surely not disinterested.

No one who has a financial stake in the outcome should be permitted to be in this position any more than a basketball official who has bet on the game should be allowed to officiate it.

For more on this go here.